An interview with Al Gore

The former VP on George Floyd, the climate movement's obligation to racial justice, and his upcoming virtual climate activist training.

I have to give Al Gore some credit.

I made fun of the former vice president in 2018 when he joined Instagram and made a statement about it. I collected environmentalist criticisms of him after he released an Inconvenient Sequel in 2017. In 2016, when I had a deeply weird job covering politics for the now-defunct video news Circa, I made a video about how nobody my age knew who Al Gore was. (Can’t believe I’m showing you this, but here).

It was all in good fun/faith/reporterly duties. But I was still surprised when, last week, Gore’s press person reached out to see if I’d like to interview him about his first-ever virtual training session for wannabe climate activists, taking place in late July. Surely they knew I was a horrible jerk?

If they didn’t know then, they found out this week. The day before our scheduled interview, I published a newsletter calling Gore out specifically for not making a statement about George Floyd’s death. The newsletter argued that silence from prominent climate activists was inexcusable; that climate and environmental work must be aligned with the movement for Black lives.

Gore, to his credit, put out a statement on George Floyd’s death a few hours later. He also did not cancel our interview.

This, of course, is partly because you are the target audience for Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps Global Training, which is taking place online from July 18 to 26. It’s the latest event from The Climate Reality Project, which was created after Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and teaches the famous “slideshow” from the film.

But it’s also because he’s not a huge jerk. At least as far as I know.

Given that—and given the fact that many readers of this newsletter might indeed be interested in attending the eight-day session—I wanted to give the former vice president an opportunity to pitch it to you directly. I also, however, wanted to keep pushing on the urgent issue of systemic racism, which will only become more urgent as the climate crisis worsens.

Both are reflected in our interview below, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. More information and resources about the training are at the end. Enjoy!

Former Vice President Al Gore on August 8, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures).

Emily Atkin: First of all, how would you like me to address you? Mr. Vice President? Mr. Gore? What are you most comfortable with? 

Al Gore: Your adequacy. No, Al is fine.

EA: Alright, Al. Wow that sounds weird. I'm excited to talk to you about the virtual activist training you're doing with Climate Reality Project. I think it's something my readers might be interested in doing.

But obviously I would be doing a disservice to my Black readers and listeners if I didn't first ask you about George Floyd's death and the mass protests of systemic racism nationwide. On Monday, my newsletter called out a few high profile climate activists and groups that hadn't yet made public statements about the protests, a week after they began. That list included you. To your credit, shortly after, you did make a statement. But I was wondering if you could just take me through the decision-making process you personally went through on whether to speak up about this.

AG: Well, it wasn’t difficult. Your newsletter called my attention to the fact that I had not put out a statement specifically on the horrendous murder of Mr. Floyd. I have been speaking out quite a bit over the last two months on the nexus between racism and climate and COVID-19, and I guess that gave me a feeling that I was addressing these systemic racism issues. But you were quite right that the depth of the tragedy and horror of Mr. Floyd’s execution warranted a special comment, for sure. And so I wasted no time in putting that out. 

But, you know, I have been—and this may sound a bit defensive, but it has the virtue of being true—I have been working on this nexus for quite a long time. I co-sponsored with John Lewis the first environmental justice law proposal back in 1991. At hearings on it, [environmental justice leader] Dr. Robert Bullard was the lead witness. Though it didn't pass, I was able to get put in place as an executive order by President Clinton when I became vice president. And I guess Trump and Steven Miller haven't found it yet, because it's still there. 

But we have a very robust presence on these issues. I had an extensive Climate Reality training in Atlanta that was really centered on coalition building. The invitation list was very heavy on civil rights groups and Black Lives Matter. And we have always included a very heavy part of our curriculum on the nexus between racism and climate. 

EA: I think it’s becoming clear now for a lot of people in the climate community that the need for climate action, as you said in your statement, “is bound together with the struggle for racial equality and liberation.” Has this always been clear to you, at least throughout your career as a climate activist? Because I think that hasn't always been clear to a lot of climate activists. 

AG: It's been clear to me for a long time. I began to learn more about this nexus through my work on climate, and in the 1980s began to delve into it more deeply. That culminated in the 1991 environmental justice legislation I mentioned previously. Since then, it has been ever-present. It was present prior to that, but I think that it reached a new plateau of centrality starting back in the early 90s.

EA: How is The Climate Reality Project addressing this nexus? I think people think of the trainings as, you know, “learning the slideshow.” Does the new online training address the nexus of racial justice and climate justice in any way? 

AG: Oh, very definitely. The training is about a good deal more than simply learning the facts and figures and narratives that make up the slideshow. It will have a deep and sustained emphasis on the nexus between racism and diversity and the climate challenge.

There are also workshops, and breakout sessions, and everyone who attends the training will have an opportunity to go deep on these issues. The training is also about learning advocacy skills and engagement and communications skills, so people can learn how to be more effective in bringing about policy changes and building a very broad and deep grassroots movement. 

These issues are inextricably braided together. The climate issue and the voter suppression issue, for example, are the same issue. There’s a phrase that shows that up on the Internet quite a bit: “Here's one stupid trick.” Well, the one stupid trick that white supremacists have used for 150 years is to accentuate racial division in order to build support among lower-income, majority-white voters for a corporate agenda that actually hurts them. It does this by increasing the amount of pollution in their communities, keeping wages low, stripping workers in the gig economy of health benefits, family leave, child care, et cetera. 

So as this election in November approaches, the Climate Reality Action Fund started organizing a voter registration drive. That campaign was also affected by COVID-19, but one of our early voter registration events was at Texas Southern, with Dr. Robert Bullard. And we had quite a number of events scheduled around the country focused on it. We’ll be rescheduling those, online or in-person, because this is going to be a turnout election. President Trump's supporters are hard core. They will turn out in November. So the turnout for his opponent has to be larger still. 

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EA: I wanted to briefly touch on Trump, and the upcoming election and how these trainings will play into it, especially given the moment we're in. One of the things that pollsters and political experts have been saying is that, to get Trump out of the White House, you really need to engage marginalized communities. 

At the same time, there's been a longstanding criticism of the environmental movement that it's been really white-led, that black people don't really feel welcome in this movement. And it's a movement that you've been part of for a really long time. I guess I'm wondering how you're personally reckoning with that history right now? And how, if at all, the trainings will reckon with that history in order to mobilize those much-needed voters?

AG: I think that there has been a good deal of change in the environmental movement, and certainly in the climate part of the environmental movement since that perception was etched in stone a long time ago. There's been a lot of people who have provided leadership to move us away from that outdated perception. I do think it's outdated now. I will only speak for the Climate Reality Project, but I see change elsewhere as well.

EA: Yeah, but I do think a lot of white environmentalists are still uncomfortable talking about race. Not that they’re racist, it’s just, you know—you think you’re getting into something that’s just about trees and greenery and air, and then all of a sudden you have to talk about race, and that can be very uncomfortable. 

AG: Well, I think that among the many changes that have had an impact on the climate movement are the climate justice movement, and the painful realization that this discrimination against communities of color that has been so evident in the criminal justice system is also highly visible in the levels of pollution that afflict communities of color. They're so much more likely to be downwind from the smokestacks and hazardous waste flows, and adjacent to the coal ash and chemical waste sites.

And I think another change has been in our culture. The richness and vitality of young African American culture on social media and on television, in music and elsewhere in movies, has profoundly shifted the awareness not only of young African Americans, but of young Americans of every ethnicity and religion orientation. And I think that this generational shift is pretty far advanced now. I think as this generation moves into positions of important leadership, we have seen a natural shift that's very profound. 

EA: Can you give your two minute pitch for why the online Climate Reality Project trainings are the thing that my newsletter readers should do? There are a lot of options for actions people can take on climate right now. Why choose this? 

AG: Well, it's been apparent to me for a long time that the political and financial influence of the fossil fuel complex has achieved such dominance in the American political system that only a grassroots, broad-based movement will suffice to really change the political reality. 

I do think we are crossing, at long last, the fabled good tipping point on climate. I hope that we are close to passing a tipping point on race in America. But I'm old enough and have seen enough to know that that's a very difficult barrier to hurdle. But I'm optimistic that joining together the climate movement and the racial equality movement will give us strength in numbers that will ultimately lead to success.

I think it is well worth it to give an hour or two, each day for a week. What you will get is a very solid grounding in the science of climate, the causes of the climate crisis, the nexus between the climate crisis and racism. You will also acquire communication skills, advocacy skills. You will become part of a network that gives you instantaneous access to mentors from now on, to give you solid advice on how to be as effective as you possibly can be in making the case for policy changes. 

EA: Last question: Who is inspiring you right now in the movement? Who are you listening to? Can you give a name or three of people that you find inspiring or giving fresh voice to climate change?

AG: I mentioned two of our board members who both are inspiring to me, Robert Bullard, a grand old man of environmental justice. And also Catherine Flowers, who has been extremely effective. 

I would also mention Reverend William Barber, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign, and who has become a very close friend. He has been extremely effective in making the case that ecological devastation should be looked at as intertwined with racism and poverty, and the other evils that the new Poor People’s Campaign rails against.

EA: Mr. Vice President, your adequacy, Al, thanks for doing this. 

AG: I look forward to talking to you again. Stay well, and stay safe. And hydrate!

Additional reading/resources

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT WITH THE TRAINING. Here’s a press release with more information about it. It’s free, but you have to have a computer and a committed amount of time. You also have to fill out an application form.

HOW WILL THIS WORK ONLINE, EXACTLY? “I will do three 40-minute slideshows,” Gore said. Then, for the breakout sessions, “We have found some very effective technology that automatically sorts the very large audience for the slide shows in groups of eight, each with a mentor, to delve very deeply into questions and answers.”

MORE ON GORE’S 1991 ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE LEGISLATION. “This legislation was the outgrowth of a long list of protests, studies, and cases involving a phenomenon known as ‘environmental racism.’ The proposed legislation was designed to ‘help those people who face the greatest risk of exposure to toxic substances and pollution.’”

ENVIRONMENTALIST CRITICISMS AND PRAISE OF GORE. I laid them out in my 2017 piece for The New Republic, “The Troubling Return of Al Gore.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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